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Monty Hall Problem Put to the Test

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The following letter was sent to me in response to my column in Scientific American (which generated hundreds of letters in response, so I penned the following response) in which I discussed the now-infamous (and infuriatingly counter-intuitive) probability problem called the Monty Hall Problem, or the Three Door Problem, in which a contestant chooses one of three doors, behind one of which is a car and the other two goats. Monty then reveals what’s behind one of the other doors (only ever showing a goat and never showing you your own door pick), which is always a goat, then asks if you want to change doors. Most people say it doesn’t matter because now it’s 50/50, but the correct answer is that you should always switch, which will give you a two-thirds chance of winning. There are simulations of the game online, but my correspondent took it upon himself to test the game with his own computer program. Here are his very interesting results, which also nicely show the scientific method at work: (continue reading...)

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Miracle on Probability Street

The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that one-in-a-million miracles happen 295 times a day in America
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Because I am often introduced as a “professional skeptic,” people feel compelled to challenge me with stories about highly improbable events. The implication is that if I cannot offer a satisfactory natural explanation for that particular event, the general principle of supernaturalism is preserved. A common story is the one about having a dream or thought about the death of a friend or relative and then receiving a phone call five minutes later about the unexpected death of that very person.

I cannot always explain such specific incidents, but a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America. (continue reading…)

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God’s Number Is Up

Among a heap of books claiming that science proves God’s existence emerges one that computes a probability of 67 percent
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In his 1916 poem “A Coat,” William Butler Yeats rhymed: “I made my song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies/From heel to throat.”

Read “religion” for “song,” and “science” for “coat,” and we have a close approximation of the deepest flaw in the science and religion movement, as revealed in Yeats’s denouement: “But the fools caught it,/Wore it in the world’s eyes/As though they’d wrought it./ Song, let them take it / For there’s more enterprise/In walking naked.”

Naked faith is what religious enterprise was always about, until science became the preeminent system of natural verisimilitude, tempting the faithful to employ its wares in the practice of preternatural belief. Although most efforts in this genre offer little more than scientistic cant and religious blather, a few require a response from the magisterium of science, if for no other reason than to protect that of religion; if faith is tethered to science, what happens when the science changes? One of the most innovative works in this genre is The Probability of God (Crown Forum, 2003), by Stephen D. Unwin, a risk management consultant in Ohio, whose early physics work on quantum gravity showed him that the universe is probabilistic and whose later research in risk analysis led him to this ultimate computation. (continue reading…)

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